Broad Base, Low Rates: Every US State Fails on Good Sales Tax Principles

In a previous post, I contrasted the income and property taxes, but I left out the other important tax: the retail sales tax. So let’s rectify that omission.

The retail sales tax is like the “Little Engine that Could,” delivering a steady stream of revenue to governments, while mostly staying out of the passionate debates surrounding the income and sales taxes. About 23% of state and local tax revenue comes from general sales taxes in the US, roughly equal to income taxes, and if you include selective sales taxes it’s slightly larger than the property tax share.

But there’s a problem with sales tax. The sales tax “base,” basically the extent of economic activity that the base covers, has been shrinking. A lot. As Jared Walczak has recently written, in just the past 20 years the “breadth” of the sales tax (how much of the potential base it covers) has fallen from about 50% to 30%.

As Walczak also notes, there are seven or so broadly agreed on principles of sales taxes, but I would say there are two primary ones (the first two on his list):

  1. An ideal sales tax is imposed on all final consumption, both goods and services.
  2. An ideal sales tax exempts all intermediate transactions (business inputs) to avoid tax pyramiding.

But US states violate these two principles in various ways, leading to (oddly enough) a tax base that is simultaneously too narrow and too wide. Why is this?

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Coase and COVID

Update: I added a comment on the post to clarify why I don’t think that having seniors stay at home is the correct Coasean solution. In short: social isolation has high costs!

Bryan Caplan has an interesting post on COVID and reciprocal externalities. Caplan starts off with the straightforward Coasean statement: “Yes, people who don’t wear masks impose negative externalities on others. But people who insist on masks impose negative externalities, too.”

For those not familiar with Coase’s 1960 article, one of his fundamental insights about property rights is that when property rights are not clearly defined, both parties can be imposing costs on one another. The externalities are reciprocal, not just in one direction. The efficient outcome, when bargaining is not possible, is to allocate the property right such that the “least cost avoider” is the one that adjusts their behavior. In other words, you allocate the property right to the party who would obtain the property right if bargaining were possible.

But Caplan uses this Coasean framework to come to the opposite conclusion that I would. Why?

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Minimum Wage vs. EITC: Who Pays?

My co-blogger Mike Makowsky has a great post earlier this week about the minimum wage. Go read it before you read my post. When Mike said he was bothered by the notion that “the welfare state must be channeled through employment,” I very much nodded in agreement. It reminded me of a frustration I have with the entire debate about the minimum wage vs. the Earned Income Tax Credit as policy tools to help out the least well-off in society (yes, some argue they are complements, but let’s put that debate aside for the moment).

Here’s my frustration. In both the popular discussion and occasionally among academics/policy wonks, the difference between the minimum wage and the EITC is often framed this way: employers pay for the minimum wage, but the government pays for the EITC. I know there are important questions about the incidence of the minimum wage, but let’s assume that the proponents of higher minimum wages are correct, and the full cost comes out of business profits.

But the distinction between “employers” and “the government” is not a useful one. Where does the government get its revenue to pay for things like the EITC (or alternatively, food stamps)? They must come from society. There is some diversion of real resources from Group A to Group B. Group A is, in the case of the minimum wage, the owners of businesses — in other words, individuals with high incomes. Group B is the workers. But this is true in the case of both the minimum wage and the EITC!

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The Minimum Wage as Capitulation

It is an odd thing watching the pro-labor, pro-redistribution portions of our advocacy and activism classes capitulate to the notion that the the welfare state must be channeled through employment. When did this framing become so dominant? One of you just yelled “the Welfare Reform Act of 1996!” through my office window, but I think that’s wrong. I think the game was lost when we decided the minimum wage was a core policy signifier. There’s something irresistible about it– if there is one thing median voters everywhere seem to agree on is that their wage should be higher and their rent lower. Everything else is policy nerd gobbly-gook.

To my mind, the minimum wage is a policy failure strictly on the terms of (my own) left-of-center preferences. It is a victory of both political framing and strategy for coalitions against economic redistribution and the social safety net. That most of the left doesn’t even see this as a defeat makes it all the more devastating. Those outside the workforce are quietly placed outside the discussion and, in turn, are of secondary concern. More subtly, and perhaps more importantly, though, it builds into the policy construct a bargain that must be repeated and updated as national and local price levels change. Those repeated bargaining events force supporters to expend resources in each new iteration while, at the same time, giving their antagonists votes they can dangle when trying to secure support for their own pet policies. You want a higher minimum wage? Well, I’ve got a military procurement bill coming up next month that is slated to build 4 more F-16s in my district...

I subscribe to the belief that the failures of the US healthcare system most frequently stem from its connection to employment. Instead of heavily (or, yes, even entirely) subsidizing its purchase by consumers, we instead opted to grant a tax break to insurance provision by employers and here we are. The Affordable Care Act tried to weaken this connection, but still we are here. If you believe that health care is a human right, then connecting it to employment is a grievous error. If you believe a “living wage” is a human right, then why would you advocate making the same mistake again? We don’t live off wages, we live off consumption. If you want to guarantee an adequate standard of consumption, why would you include my employer as a go-between?

Which is not to say there isn’t political value to be mined from the $15 minimum wage debate. It has certainly crested the threshold of credible threat. It could be used as a political cudgel to bargain for a Universal Basic Income (UBI), and then bundled with the carrot: repeal the minimum wage entirely from the US law books in return for a $1,000 a month UBI that every citizen receives once they are no longer claimed as a legal dependent. For all the theoretic struggles the market might have with distortionary effects of a price floor (unemployment, low-cost discrimination) and substitution effects of a more expensive labor force (robots), I have all the faith in the world it can handle broad income effects just fine, thank you very much.

When economists talk about the minimum wage in bars, amongst themselves, without cheering and jeering onlookers, it is almost inevitably turns into a story of technocratic calibration. If we accept there is non-zero monopsony power, but also eventual disemployment effects, given the observed numbers, the optimal minimum wage is X% of the Zth percentile of the wage distribution. When these conversations happen on twitter, onlookers and participants are frequently less interested in calibration or generous in spirit. I’ve been on Twitter long enough to know that animal spirits are real, particularly when blood and memes are in the air.

Arguments over the minimum wage nearly always include references to an empirical literature that sometimes finds negative effects on employment while other times finds little to no disemployment at all, quickly followed by the theoretical point that there has to be some minimum wage above which employment would decline (or, at least, shift out of the legal sector). Part of what lets this debate persist are the modest sizes of past minimum wage increases. The one glaring exception I know of is when the Fair Labor Act of 1938 imposed a minimum wage that was roughly four times as large as standard worker wages in Puerto Rico, resulting in 65% unemployment . An exemption for Puerto Rico did not arrive for over two years and it is fair to say large portions of the economy were decimated. Future hikes had similarly negative, but far less cataclysmic, effects on Puerto Rican employment.

When the Fair Labor Act smashed into Puerto Rico with all the technocratic precision of a drunken mammoth, ~65% of the workforce ceased to be employed. But… do we really believe that 65% of people stopped working for a living? Of course not. Rather, the island labor market went gray. Under a hypothetically crushing minimum wage, employers will pay people in cash, off the books. They will hire family members, take them out of retirement or out of school. Yes, they’ll hire robots too, but I’m not really worried about 2nd order employment shifts favoring upper-middle class engineers. What I’m worried about is when whole classes of people enter the gray market (or markets even less legal), they no longer operate under the layering of legal and regulatory protections we often take for granted, especially ostensibly pro-market types who think that labor and safety standards are emergent phenomena. This sounds suboptimal to me, and probably to most labor advocates, but you know who it might sound great to? Libertarians who want the government entirely out of the workplace.

The minimum wage has become a left wing shibboleth, but that doesn’t make it good left wing policy. If anything, its one of the great right-wing gambits of the last 100 years. A policy that undermines its own ambitions at semi-regular intervals and inoculates the political marketplace against superior policies that would help far more people but, yes, would demand a larger tax bill. What more could Republican’s have asked for than a policy that holds the welfare state tax bill at bay and while handing ammunition to the Democratic coalition members purging their own ranks?

How Should We Teach Public Goods Theory?

Joshua Hendrickson recently wrote about the provision of public goods, and how we teach public goods in economics. My post today is not so much a reply to Hendrickson, but is inspired by his mediation on public goods as I gear up to teach another semester of Public Finance.

The theory of public goods that economists discuss among themselves is pretty straightforward: when a good is both non-rival and non-excludable, there is a strong case for government intervention of some sort (though not necessarily public provision). The opposite is true when a good is both rival and excludable: there is a strong case for laissez faire.

Seems simple enough, right? But communicating this concept to undergraduates and the general public has been a major challenge. Part of the confusion arises from the term itself, “public good.” Non-economists tend to use the term interchangeably with the notion of “the common good, as is clear from Wikipedia, a dictionary, or a conversation with your grandma. For this reason, I sometimes substitute the awkward phrase “collective consumption good” (this is actually Samuelson’s term in his classic article on the topic), but all the textbooks so use it so I often default to the standard terminology.

From Jonathan Gruber’s Public Finance and Public Policy

But I think there’s a deeper problem than just terminology. Economists have put themselves in a box. Literally. Here’s a standard 2×2 matrix from Jonathan Gruber’s undergraduate public finance textbook. I don’t mean to pick on Gruber here — this is a pretty standard presentation. You can find it in many microeconomics textbooks too, or on Wikipedia. Everything goes in a box! It’s a nice stylized way to think of the terminology. It makes for nice test questions. But here’s the real problem with it as a pedagogical tool: it doesn’t seem to help many students! Or at least, it doesn’t seem to help them retain the knowledge between their micro principles courses and upper division courses (at least in my experience, I’d be happy to hear others chime in here).

So how can we teach this concept better? I have a few ideas. I’d like to hear yours too.

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What’s the Worst Tax?

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, when we start to get all those little documents in the mail and electronically showing how much you earned in the past year. The purpose of these little documents, of course, is to complete your federal and state income tax returns. While many Americans dislike paying income taxes, there is another tax that is rated as even worse in surveys: the property tax.

Why do Americans dislike the property tax so much? One popular explanation is that people don’t like the idea that “you never really own your property.” In other words, even after you have paid off your mortgage, you must continue to pay property taxes, which feels like a form of “rent” that you pay to the government. Of course, that “rent” does pay for a variety of public services, primarily K-12 education in most locations, but this still seems to rub many Americans the wrong way. The libertarian phase “taxation is theft” conveys a similar sentiment for income taxes, that you never “really own” your own labor if you must pay taxes on your earnings.

But there is also an economic explanation for the hatred of the property tax: it is very salient, especially to taxpayers that no longer have a mortgage. While those of us that still have a mortgage on our home pay property taxes through our normal monthly mortgage payment, Americans that have paid off their mortgage typically write a check (or two) to pay the full amount of their property tax bill. An interesting paper by Cabral and Hoxby finds that jurisdictions with more taxpayers using escrow for their property taxes (meaning they have a mortgage) also have higher property tax rates. And furthermore, they “find that owners with tax escrow report their taxes much less accurately than those without tax escrow” (look at Figure 2 in the paper to see the huge differences).

Income taxes, on the other hand, are not salient for most Americans. Payroll withholding means that the taxes are taken out before we even get our paycheck, and you’ll only notice them if you look at your pay stub. And about three-quarters of US taxpayers get a tax refund at the end of the year. For most Americans, the only salient part of the income tax system is a check they receive as a refund, rather than writing a check for their property taxes.

What does all this mean? Should income taxes be made more salient? Should property taxes be made less salient? A simple answer could be that all taxes should be equally salient. Or if you view one tax as superior in some way, maybe that tax should be less salient, so there is less opposition to it.

I don’t have the answers to these questions. But I do have a question for readers: do you know your own income tax rate? Specifically, what is the marginal rate on your federal income taxes? I invite readers to write down their guesses, then look up the correct answer. How close were you? Please leave a comment, and be honest!

The Political Center is Endogenous to You

I stumbled into a twitter conversation about this relatively innocuous breakdown of news sources:

Now there are plenty of ways to pick this apart. No, I don’t care that you are socially liberal and fiscally conservative. I also do not care that a one-dimensional political spectrum can’t capture the fine nuance of your political ethos. Yes, the farthest left and right bins equivocate between often very different levels of bias, but that’s mostly of a product of only having five bins. Obviously greater accuracy could be had by delineating into 9 bins (and yeah, there is some real weird stuff in tails of this distribution). But coarseness or inaccuracy at the margin is not what grabbed by attention. I don’t really care that the lunacy at OAN and largely evidence-based reporting at Vox are in bins of seemingly reciprocal bias, as I know that’s just an artifact of the 5 bin structure.

Rather, what I was intrigued by were the frustrations and bias attributed in the comments about news sources, such as the BBC and NPR, improperly classified as the center. I’m well aware that many people are annoyed by “centrists”. They are traitors to the cause who should know better than to side with the enemy and will, of course, be first against the wall when the revolution comes. There is, more seriously, a frustration that centrists think they can make a claim to the truth by simply splitting the difference of the political distribution, like using the mean surveyed number of jelly beans in a jar. This aggravates people partly because it is a gross misuse of the wisdom of crowds, but mostly because we often think our position is the truth against which all other political identities should be gauged. It’s an old George Carlin joke – everyone driving slower than you is an idiot, everyone driving faster than you is an asshole. The “right wing” is everyone to the right of me. The “left wing” is everyone to the left of me. As for the crazies, well, that depends on your social identity. If you think of yourself as a right (left)-of-center, well then the far left (right) is full of lunatic socialists (corporatist fascists) out to destroy everything we love. The far right (left)? Well, they are a bit much I admit, but they are just spirited activists doing their best in a hostile environment.

Everyone hates centrists in large part because so many of us, on some level, think of ourselves as the reasonable political center. For some right or left-wing yahoo to plant their flag in to the rich soil of the center and call it their own is not just an affront to our sensibilities, it’s an act of political war.

To be fair to the Twitterverse, one person did manage to bring to this cavalcade of frustration an excellent alternative chart that had 7 bins (!) and a second dimension (!!!) regarding the reliability of information. That should have calmed most people down, obviously social media is neither the time nor place for such things.

It’s in this wonderful figure that so much of the story really comes out. People are rightfully upset that honest news sources are being conflated with tabloid rags. They’re also upset, however, that excellent and reliable sources are being attributed centrist neutrality. How dare they attribute the power of veracity and truth to those well-known right-wing whackos at the BBC! We tell ourselves we ignore the BBC/NPR/Economist/WSJ because of its gross bias, but the reality is we ignore them because they’re boring and never tell us we’re smart and pretty and righteous.

The original post was trying to suggest to people they consider balancing their political diet. My suggestion would not be to balance the bias in your diet (we like what we like), but rather to focus on the most reliable sources (the green bullseye in the second figure) and cut out the fried BS. All of that rage and confirmation bias, it’s nothing but empty calories.

Dan Wang’s 2020 letter on China

Dan Wang is a writer who currently lives in Beijing. He’s released another long letter about what is going on in China. I’ll share the part that caught my attention.

Waiting politely in line is a pretty strong norm in America. I had heard from several sources that Chinese norms for waiting in an orderly line were weak. Here’s an update on that:

And for years, Xi has emphasized following clear rules of written procedure, under the rubric of “law-based governance.”  Since then, the state has improved regulatory systems, for example in setting clear standards for license approvals and in securities and antitrust regulation. The state has removed some of the arbitrary aspects of governance, thus bringing serious enforcement actions following the passage of relatively clear regulations. That has improved facts on the ground. Companies and lawyers tell me that a decade-long effort by the State Council to ease doing business has yielded real results. Obtaining business licenses no longer requires a relentless pace of wining and dining, and has instead become close to a matter of routine. I haven’t been able to verify this fact for myself, but one of my friends told me that the office of the National Development and Reform Commission used to be ringed by some of the fanciest restaurants in Beijing, offering mostly private rooms; many of these restaurants have now closed, following the professionalization of business approvals.

The lived experience of being in Beijing has improved in parallel. I remember what a nightmare it was to buy a high-speed rail ticket for the first time years ago, which involved lots of yelling and multiple people cutting in line. Today, I purchase one on my phone, with no need to obtain a paper ticket, and the lines to board are more or less orderly.

China is changing.

Incidentally, I tried to start a company when I was about 19 in New Jersey. Applying for a tax ID number for my sole proprietorship was quick and easy. All I had to do was fill out a form and pay a small fixed fee to some government office.

One Acceptable Truth or a Million Fantasies

Humans are soft, slow, and (to the best of my knowledge) make for fairly nutritious meals. Brains for tool-making, and the opposable thumbs for using them, are significant evolutionary adaptations, but it is our capacity to act collectively that placed us at the top of the food chain.

By the end of a standard undergraduate economics curriculum, one couldn’t be blamed for coming to the conclusion that the failures of collective action are the greatest obstacle to mankind – Oh what we could have accomplished if only we had ever found a way to just cooperate. Alas, all those externalities, Prisoners’ Dilemmas, free riders, easy riders, market failures, government failures, they just stopped us at every turn

I’m not doubting the pedagogical value of teaching any of these obstacles, I teach them myself, but I do believe that sometimes we spend insufficient time reminding students that humans have been doing nothing but solving collective action problems, with great success, for thousands of years. Every national government, book club, homeowners association, and sorority have managed to produce public goods. So has, of course, every military coup and angry mob (if only, sometimes, for fleeting moments), but collective action is collective action, regardless of how we may feel about the outcome.

More often than not the most interesting question to me isn’t can a collective action problem be solved, but rather i) how has it already been solved and ii) how is that solution going to be threatened or hijacked? When I look to the current political landscape and the only mildly-exaggerated state of political and social polarization, I see not just rivalrous ideologies, but alternative strategies for engendering and ensuring cooperation. On the left, I observe greater recent emphasis on purity – there is a narrow band of acceptable truth and any deviation from that, be it however accidental or benign in intent, can lead to significant punishments, including purges colloquially referred to as cancellations. On the right, I see required public professing of incorrect, often seemingly absurd, beliefs. I might talk about purity tests and purges on the left another times. What I’m interested in at the moment are the public untruths of current right wing identities (broadly conceived) and how they fit into the sacrifice and stigma theory, or club theory, of religion.**

I’ve written a lot about sacrifice and stigma theory. It has without a doubt become the hammer than has left me forever searching for nails. Originally put forth by Laurence Iannaccone in 1992, it is nothing short of brilliant to my mind. A tool for solving collective problems so profound that when it shows up we barely notice it, and where it shows up tends to be the most powerful clubs shaping our societies: the religious, martial, and extremist political groups that bend the arc of history.

Groups produce what we call “club goods” i.e. public goods only accessible to members of the group. What Iannaccone demonstrated was that a group could actually increase their production of club goods by burdening its members with completely unproductive costs. Why do religious groups require clothing, behavior, or language that could stigmatize their members in broader society? Why are members required to sacrifice their resources at the literal or figurative altar of the group? Because if you impair members’ private productivity, or if the fruits of that private production are skimmed away, they will invest more of their resources into the group. If all group members face these same altered incentives, guess what, you’ve solved the collective action problem!

When I see educated women and men declaring the earth is 5,000 years old, that evolution isn’t real, that climate change is a hoax, or that Donald Trump is a brilliant human being, what I see is public profession of beliefs that might limit social or even occupational opportunities and, in turn, further commit them to a specific subset of affiliations. In the constellation of beliefs that might end up as political shibboleths, of course, there stand to be some more costly than others. In fact, there might even be beliefs that impose negative externalities on others, such antipathy towards vaccines or mask-wearing during a pandemic. Excessive burden might hurt the group, of course – remember, club membership must to be a net gain to persist. In a polarized society, however, vitriol created in rival factions by the externality-generating belief could actually intensify the commitment of group members. The liberals hate real-Americans like me so much now, they’d never accept me as anything but a dumb redneck, so the rational thing to do is double down on my commitment to the only group that will have me. Beliefs that reduce private productivity, increase group productivity, and create long-run antipathy in rival groups can serve to create something incredibly valuable to the group: a captured membership. If there is one thing that is evolutionarily hard-wired into human beings it is the knowledge that isolation is death. A member so stigmatized by past public behavior that rival groups would never accept them stands to be very committed to the group going forward.

The vulnerability of sacrifice and stigma born of public adherence to false beliefs, however, is the capacity of leaders to incept preferred false beliefs into the dogma. This is one way that minority groups can become scapegoated, the carbon costs of fossil fuels denied, quack remedies pedaled, or the reliability of electoral institutions undermined. Religious texts exist (mostly) unedited for long periods of time for a very important reason: core rules of behavior, methods of tithing, and sets of beliefs must be inoculated against opportunistic actors who would hijack the club goods they produce.

Sacrifice and stigma through club-specific false beliefs is a dangerous strategy for political parties for the simple reason that without the constraints of fact or scripture, leaders will feel the pull of their own preferences. Far more dangerous however, is the megalomaniacal conman that any political party institutionally designed to demand cognitive dissonance of its members will eventually attract. Political parties need to solve collective action problems, yes, but they also need immune systems. One might point to social norms, both within and outside the group, as key means of protection. Recent years, however, would seem to suggest that norms are not sufficiently robust in the long run. The US court system has held up well, and has in many ways served as the nations constitutional immune system. Perhaps the major political parties should consider updating and reinforcing their own constitutions, and put in place mechanisms to protect themselves from the next inevitable invasion.

American political parties need to update and upgrade their immune systems.

Inspiring research:

Iannaccone, Laurence R. “Sacrifice and stigma: Reducing free-riding in cults, communes, and other collectives.” Journal of political economy 100.2 (1992): 271-291.

Aimone, Jason A., Laurence R. Iannaccone, Michael D. Makowsky, and Jared Rubin. “Endogenous group formation via unproductive costs.” Review of Economic Studies 80, no. 4 (2013): 1215-1236.

**Note: this is not to suggest that left-wing identity affiliations don’t utilize sacrifice and stigma mechanisms. There is no shortage of what I suspect are completely ineffective, but highly visible, ostensibly pro-environment behaviors that are demanded. But the “headline” mechanisms of herding left-of-center identities under the progressive banner look more like threats of exile than sacrifice and stigma.

Logrolling: An Efficient Institution

Along with the colorful phrase “pork barrel” spending, logrolling is a term used to describe the process of vote trading in elected legislative bodies. The process has long been maligned by political scientists, pundits, and the general public. It’s also come up in the debate about the proposed Budget/COVID Relief Bill.

President Grant tried to stop logrolling. He failed.

What’s bad about logrolling? I think there are two general lines of argument. First, it just seems immoral. Citizens can’t legally trade their votes, and many see any attempt to do so as wrong. You get one vote, and one vote only. For someone to have more votes than others rubs our intuitions the wrong way, similar to the ability for wealthy individuals or corporations to essentially have more votes by influencing politicians through campaign contributions.

More pragmatically, logrolling gets a bad name because it could lead to wasteful spending, particularly the “pork barrel” type that Americans really hate (unless it is coming to their district, of course). If you vote for my bill, I will vote for yours, even though I might not care about your bill. Maybe even I think your bill is kinda bad, but I think my bill is really good, so I am willing to hold my nose and vote for your bill, if it gets me what I want.

Buchanan and Tullock (1962) turned this logic on its head. Logrolling is efficient because it allows members to express their preferences, specifically the intensity of their preferences. Moreover, it allows legislative bodies to get things done that are beneficial for society, even if none of those things would pass in a simple referendum.

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